This lesson is the first in a series of lessons on Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales focusing on "The Knight's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale". In this lesson I've focused on close reading strategies and using connotation and denotation to understand character traits and themes.
We begin The Prologue with a cultural context reading. We read the first fifty lines out loud, with students switching off around every ten lines or so.
I then ask them, "What time of year is it?" "What is the weather like?" For some reason these students aren't certain of the time of year, even though the first line reads, "When April with his sweet showers with fruit". Some students think it is already summer, ("When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,/Quickened again, in every holt and heath,") or even autumn (that student had no textual evidence). It's clear the students really do not like poetic syntax, and we work on reading poetic syntax.
"What is the subject of the sentence?" I ask. Blank looks. "What are the most important words in the first sentence?" The students correctly zero in on the capitalized words, and a few mention 'pilgramages', 'palmers' and 'sundry lands'. We then look at the capitalized words and work out that much of what Chaucer is writing about is figurative language.
Someone in class recognizes the astrological symbol for Aries as the Ram, and someone else remembers from World Literature that palmers were people who travelled to the Holy Land.
We continue to re-read the rest of the lines, and the students are able to make out that the narrator is at at a tavern in 'Southwark'. Also, that other people are there who are going to go to Canterbury.
At this point I briefly explain to them that Canterbury was important because Thomas a' Becket was martyred there by four knights.
At this point I clue the students into the fact that "The Prologue" to "Canterbury Tales" is a frame story and that Chaucer's original plan was to have each of the characters he is about to introduce tell two stories, one on the way to Canterbury and one on the way back. I explain that there is a wager involved and that the person who tells the best story wins a dinner.
We then look at the lines describing the Knight. They recognize that the Knight loves being a knight and that he has travelled a lot. They question the way Chaucer describes his garb, and for some one who has led such a successful life, seems to be dressed very morosely.
I ask them to see if there is anything about the Knight they think might be ironic, and they think he tries too hard. That his belief in chivalry might be a little naive. Or it could be that he is genuinely a good knight, one who leaves the battlefield for pilgrimage, one who acts exactly as he believes.
This is when I introduce the concept of 'estates satire' to the students and help them see that Chaucer isn't just poking fun at one knight but making representing the entire knight class.
We then move on to The Prioress, and this is where the students start to pick up on Chaucer's use of irony. Students identify her haughty nature as a reversal of the humility a nun should display. Thy also pick up on her selfishness as she feeds her dogs morsels of rich food while common people barely have enough food.
We discuss why Chaucer's depiction of someone who is supposed to represent feminine purity and good church stewardship is portrayed in such a negative way.
Teaching The Prologue can be tricky. I never focus on the same characters from year to year, but choose different characters based on the class. My choice of The Prioress had a lot to do with her appearance and behavior, it's obvious that Chaucer is using irony to express his disapproval of the Prioress' wasteful, selfish habits. It's also clear that Chaucer writes one way about her, and wants his readers to read another way. The Prioress helps raise students' irony awareness and they know what to look for when we read the descriptions of other characters.
Sometimes if we have time I give the students the questions to The Prologue handout as an in-class assignment and sometimes as homework. It could also be used as a quiz or ticket out the door. The main goal with this question sheet is to check for understanding, particularly with regard to the character's appearances and what Chaucer wants us to think of them.